LAST Friday Gina and I were guests at the Scottish Farmer Burns Supper. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and I had to sing a couple of Burns’ songs but I suspect I got the best of the deal.
It’s always a delight to hear other folk’s interpretations of Burns’ work, the ploughman poet who is often regarded as a genius while undoubtedly being a bit of a rogue, a womaniser and a lad who enjoyed nothing better than a night out with his friends in a tavern singing bawdy songs. In short, a real human being.
It was on our way home that we thought we’d visit a Highland Perthshire site that has strong associations with Robert Burns, a place that looks its best after periods of heavy rain.
The natural miracle of hydrodynamics is best observed in very wet weather conditions when our moors and mountains harness all the fallen rain, soak it up like a gargantuan sponge, then, by unseen energies, forces it up though the surface of the ground in the form of bubbling streams. The Bruar Water, just north of Blair Atholl, feeds from the great soggy plateaux and moors of upper Atholl and, initially flows gently down the empty miles of Glen Bruar before, chameleon-like, changing character completely.
As the ground falls away the waters become agitated and turbulent, before crashing and thundering down the deep gorge that cradles its bed. At the foot of the gorge the water roars over a series of falls and cascades before finally surging through a natural arch in the rock and into the pools below. The river is at its finest during and immediately after periods of heavy rain – that’s the best time to view the aquatic power of these Bruar Falls.
What makes Bruar so spectacular is the simple combination of rock, water and trees, basic elements that offer grandeur on a magnificent scale, but in the late eighteenth century this narrow glen was virtually devoid of trees. One visitor to the falls, William Gilpin commented, “One of them indeed is a grand fall, but it is so naked in its accompaniments that it is of little value.”
But it was Robert Burns, in1787, who was responsible for changing the character of this beauty spot. He wasn’t all that impressed with the place and later wrote “The Humble Petition of Bruar Water to the Noble Duke of Atholl.”
This eleven-verse poem contains the lines, “Would then my noble master please, To grant my highest wishes? He’ll shade my banks wi’ tow’ring trees, And bonnie spreading bushes.”
The Duke of Atholl acquiesced and the first trees were planted in 1797. Sadly the Bard died before the plantations grew but others have left their impressions in words and pictures – William Wordsworth, William Turner, Queen Victoria and thousands of appreciative visitors from home and abroad.
Whenever I pass through Atholl I’m reminded of the influence of the ploughman-poet. Generations of Dukes of Atholl have planted trees in and around the area, indeed the woodlands of Atholl are one of the rich characteristics of the region and it’s probably amongst the best wooded areas of the highlands. I wonder what Atholl would be like today if Robert Burns hadn’t felt the need to advise the mighty laird on how to improve his property. The power of simple verse changed attitudes and an entire landscape.
We have a lot to thank Robert Burns for, and not just his wonderful legacy of song and verse.